Agriculture and related industries are unthinkable in Idaho without immigrant labor.
That was the tone of a Tuesday morning presser in which representatives of agricultural interests and the faith community made their annual call for immigration reform at the Idaho Farm Bureau. This year’s plea, however, came as tensions over the issue—both in Idaho and the U.S. generally—are unusually high.
“If you wave a wand and the labor’s gone, Idaho’s economy collapses,” said Idaho Dairymen’s Association Executive Director Bob Naerebout.
Agriculture makes up approximately 55 percent of Idaho’s economy and a high percentage of its workforce is foreign-born. Naerebout estimated 90-95 percent of dairy industry laborers were not born in the U.S.
“To the best of my knowledge, all of our employees are legal,” he said, adding, however, the actual percentage of undocumented laborers working in Idaho agriculture comes closer to the national average—approximately 70 percent.
The solution, Naerebout said, is to strengthen and expand work visa programs that account for both seasonal and non-seasonal labor. According to a survey by the New American Economy, there are almost 42,000 undocumented immigrants in Idaho, including almost 2,000 undocumented entrepreneurs. That’s out of a total of approximately 100,000 immigrants in Idaho, who make up 6.3 percent of the total state population and represent a combined spending power of $1.5 billion. Immigrant-owned companies employ 14,616 people.